So close, yet so far: Kevin Kilbane in action against Turkey in the 1999 play-off game

It would be oddly fitting. But should Ireland play abysmally yet somehow produce a miracle in Paris on Wednesday there would be a sense of records being righted. It was here, after all, where Ireland's problems with the play-offs began. Here, where an improving Irish side "outclassed" – as one French newspaper put it – the then European champions Spain only to fall to a fortuitous Ufarte goal. And here where the circle needs to be completed.

By doing so, Ireland would also improve an atrocious play-off record. Indeed, with only one win in five appearances, it's one of the worst in the world. Only Austria, Israel and Ukraine with no victories can feel anyway envious of us. The reasons for this, of course, are entirely rational. We've always been no more than a mid-tier nation. Mere probability means we'll always have such problems. But then we've also managed to inflict a fair few upon ourselves.

We had form here long before the notion of play-offs was even formed. That's not the term Fifa may have used for Ireland's 1938 qualifying campaign but that's certainly what it came under. A two-team group meant Ireland would play two legs against Norway to secure their passage to France.

After a four-day trip to Oslo for the first leg in October 1937, the then Free State side managed an admirable 3-2 defeat against 1936 Olympic bronze medallists Norway. Emboldened by their efforts, the FAI rightly felt new ground could be reached. In more ways than one though. In the aftermath of Eamon De Valera's new constitution and claim on the entire island, the FAI had angered their Northern counterparts, the IFA, with a series of overtures to Northern players. Now, as Ireland attempted to clinch qualification and called up Manchester United's fine Drogheda-born keeper Tommy Breen, the IFA saw a chance to make a point.

Trouble had began before then though. Learning that Irish goalscorer Jimmy Dunne had previously appeared for Northern Ireland, who were not then a member of Fifa, Norway argued he was ineligible and also, therefore, was Ireland's participation. The FAI went straight to Fifa and Norway took no action, admitting the protest "had been suggested to them".

The question that will always cloud this game is how much suggestion Breen had. Because four days before, it was announced he had quit the squad to join up with the North for their match against Scotland. The IFA's arguments were that the FAI already had a keeper in the hero of the first leg, George Mackenzie, and none of their call-ups could appear for another team three days before a fixture. Breen phoned FAI Secretary Joe Wickham to ask for his release. Wickham accepted, but felt the call should have come from the IFA.

Debate raged over whether Breen was made move, merely meek or simply wanted it himself. Only deepening the divide though was the fact Ireland drew 3-3 with his replacement, the patently unfit Mackenzie, at fault for two goals. The FAI passed a resolution Breen would "be not invited to play for his country" again.

Ireland had the backing of a home crowd that day, something which would be oddly denied them in every play-off second-leg since. Infamously, it needn't have been the case in 1965. Ireland could well have benefited from the support of the migrant community in London and Liverpool but notoriously faced a partisan Spanish crowd in Paris due to the FAI's alleged negotiations. Guaranteed full gate receipts by the Spanish federation, the Irish body acceded to their choice of venue.

Less well known though is the nature of Ireland's performance. Described as one of the greatest Irish displays, John Giles and Andy McEvoy both crafted fine chances before Ufarte's strike. And even that had an element of fortune as, with Theo Foley off the pitch, Jesus Pereda finally got free to cross for the 80th-minute winner. The Sunday Press, saw no misfortune but only mismanagement as they began the calls for the selection committee to close in favour of a full-time manager.

By our next play-off, in Liverpool 30 years later, the calls were for the end of one such manager. Two aspects stood out from Ireland's 2-0 annihilation at the feet of Holland and Patrick Kluivert that night. The difference in age between the sides and the fact Ireland started with four full-backs. When asked why Jason McAteer and Mark Kennedy were to be excluded, Charlton responded "neither of them have learned what we are all about yet". And when it came to picking who would fill the left side in Steve Staunton's absence, Charlton only made his decision when he went for a stroll and saw Terry Phelan doing the same, remembering a recent club performance.

Despite the crowd's farewell of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', Charlton had actually wanted to stay on and have another crack at the World Cup.

His replacement Mick McCarthy had to attempt to bridge a gap between generations, and how close he got to doing so against Belgium is under-acknowledged. Yes, Ireland may have been outclassed and outpassed after Luc Nilis's equaliser to Denis Irwin's free-kick in Dublin, but they recovered resolutely for the second leg. Ireland brought the tie level with Ray Houghton rolling back the years to equalise Luis Oliveria's opener. Then, misfortune marked another play-off. In the 68th minute, Ireland should have had a throw-in near their box and with many players still remonstrating, the Belgians took it quickly, the ball was swept in and Nilis struck. The anger finally erupted with David Connolly petulantly kicking out with 15 minutes left.

McCarthy's next campaign would end with even worse violence. At least it wasn't seen though. Having drawn the first leg 1-1 against Turkey after Lee Carsley's debatable handball in the box, RTE failed to get the rights. Perhaps just as well as a toothless Ireland, without the suspended scorer Robbie Keane, struggled to break down Turkey with lone striker Tony Cascarino heavily marked. Kicked one too many times he eventually retaliated with a right hook at the end only to be surrounded by several fans as a huge melee developed. Afterwards, McCarthy lamented. "I'm going to change my name by deed poll to 'Lucky' if things like this keep happening."

By 2001, such luck evened out. Even if the context of the tie led to the chaos of Saipan. Ireland persevered despite Roy Keane's absence, despite the noise of the Iranian crowd, despite Staunton applauding the end of Islamic prayers because he thought it was the national anthem. The hope is Ireland's are answered on Wednesday.